October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween to the Dark Money/Privatization Industrial Complex – a cabal that can only operate in darkness.  As for why the money only comes out at night we now have two stunted explanations, from Paul Sagan and Families for Excellent Schools. And they don’t match up.

Mr. Sagan issued his defense to his hidden contributions in a seven page letter, discussed here recently. In baseball terms the letter tried to do what a good pitcher will do to a hitter – change his eye level. In this case Mr. Sagan’s defense was that FES had the obligation to disclose, not him. That’s true, but it doesn’t address Mr. Sagan’s legal obligation not to make a donation for the “purpose of disguising the true origin of the contribution.” Which, in his own words, it seems he did.

Banned-in-Boston Families for Excellent Schools has a different defense. FES says that its high powered D.C. legal counsel told it that

an organization that raises funds for a political purpose, but does not indicate to donors that the funds will be used to influence a specific election, does not generally need to register as a political committee.

Accordingly, FES and FESA did not earmark or take direction from donors concerning the way that FESA would use a specific donation, and donors did not direct that FESA use a donor’s funds in particular manner.

But that’s not the way Mr. Sagan saw it. He knew damn sure what he was writing checks for:

In March of 2016 I requested an opinion from the State Ethics Commission relating to contributions I was considering making from personal funds to organizations associated with efforts to raise the statutory cap on charter schools in Massachusetts by various means, including legislation or a ballot question.

Earlier in the letter, Mr. Sagan wrote:

I was familiar with those groups (the groups to which he made his donations, including FES) well before Question Two was even placed on the ballot. I knew their leaders, they asked me for financial support, and I gave them some.

It gets worse. FES’s defense goes on

The donors relied in good faith on the solicitation materials and advice provided by FESA in making donations to FESA in the manner that they did. FESA regularly provided documentation to donors that discussed FESA’s legal analysis and FESA assured donors in writing that FESA was complying with its obligations under applicable state law and that it would not take any steps that would require it to register as a political committee.

Translation: Dear Donors, write those checks and your names will never, ever be made public.

Now, back to FES’s defense:

Donors making contributions to FESA did not intend to disguise the source of contributions intended for the GSM Committee.

Translation: Our solicitation materials and regularly provided documentation to donors assured them that their contributions would be kept secret, but the donors didn’t intend their donations to be kept secret.

But along comes Mr. Sagan, who found FES’s pitch irresistible, to blow a hole in FES’s defense again:

I have been criticized for not making a voluntary disclosure of my donations ahead of any disclosure by the organizations themselves. I did give careful consideration to making such a disclosure—to simply announcing that I had made donations to two organizations that supported lifting the statutory cap on charters. But I decided not to do so.

Translation: FES says it begged about $20 million funds from Boston’s most sophisticated plutocrats with solicitation materials that didn’t tell them what the money would be used for but that it would all be kept secret.  The investors never even whispered to FES how they would like their millions spent, they just innocently wrote checks.  But then to translate Mr. Sagan, he knew exactly what he was writing checks for because FES’s leaders (unnamed) explained it would be for the charters ballot question, and for Mr. Sagan secrecy was of utmost importance.

Zombies, let’s get our stories straight!

The Washington Post recently adopted a new slogan: “Democracy dies in darkness.” I agree.

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money (and other things). I don't write about education policy.]

Paul Sagan, Families for Excellent Schools

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